Ian Ayres Hits Home with “Carrots and Sticks”

Back in July, I posted about the website Stickk.com.  Stickk.com uses the concept of commitment bonds to help people achieve goals.  Commitment bonds are an agreement to pay a fine if we don’t achieve a goal, such as weight loss or exercise or even walking the dog.  Commitment bonds rely on the premise of “loss aversion:”  people fill the sting of losses more than the elation of an identical gain.

I used Stickk.com in early 2009 to lose one pound a week for twenty weeks.  I agreed on Stickk.com to pay $75 to charity, if I didn’t stay on my pace of one pound per week.  Thus, for the 20 weeks timeframe, I put $1,500 at risk.  In the end, I achieved my weight loss goal and paid out only $75 over the course of the week.

After I lost the weight, I had an opportunity to talk with Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale Law School, and one of the founders of Stickk.com.  Now, 14 months later, my weight loss experience with Stickk.com is described in his new book Carrots and Sticks. The book is an expansion of his theories around commitments and how people make them and achieve them.

I’m proud to be an example of how commitment bonds can work.  But, as Ian describes in the book, making the commitment bond itself wasn’t enough for me.  I took the commitment one step further, and I told my parents, sisters, in-laws and co-workers about the commitment.  I invited all of them to register at Stickk.com and watch my weight loss.  Telling them was a lot harder than putting the $1,500 at risk.  Ian talks about this social aspect a bit in the book (see page 183), but I can’t underscore it enough.  Getting fined and getting embarrassed socially for missing a commitment is a powerful one-two combo.

My commitment actually took one step more than Ian documents in the book.  About three weeks into the diet, I presented on loss aversion and other aspects of behavioral economics at a meeting of my company’s top 120 executives.  During the Q&A session after the presentation, a colleague publicly “outed” me and my commitment in front of all these folks as an example.  In retrospect, I couldn’t have asked for a better incentive.

Ian writes in the book about how I was likely to gain back half the weight after a year, due to my unwillingness to enter into a “maintenance contract,” in which I would commit to keep my weight within a band or have to pay out a sum to charity.  After struggling to get through those last few pounds, I just had no energy to enter into a maintenance contract.  I remember telling Ian that I needed a few weeks off, that I was just too tired.  Ian accurately describes our conversation in the book.

Unfortunately, the good professor is correct on pages 105 and 106 of his book that I should have entered into that maintenance contract.  The 20th pound came off in May, 2009.  Now, in October, 2010, I have indeed gained back half the weight, exactly what Ian predicted.  And, you know what? I’m struggling to get the weight back off without making a commitment bond.

If I had a do-over, I would have entered into the maintenance contract.  I’ve gone from the shining example of how commitment bonds can be helpful to the example of how not using them can hurt.  Bummer.

I think that adding a commitment bond to weight loss goals is likely the answer for people who already have the social embarrassment, but still aren’t achieving their goals.  Many people use on-line communities, blogs, or support groups to help them.  I’ve written how Brian Stelter posts his eating diary and weight on Twitter with regularity and, just last week, about a scale that will tweet your weight every day.  Is publicity of your success or failure really enough incentive?  I’ve actually been posting about my diet once a week for nine weeks.  I wanted to lose one pound per week, but after nine weeks, I’m down only 4.4 pounds.

I’m glad that Stickk.com is a success, and I urge others to use it.  I wish Ian best wishes with his book.  It’s an honor to be cited in the book, for better and for worse.

With our daughter’s bat mitzvah coming up in early February, there could be another commitment bond on Stickk.com in my future.  I’m sure Ian would recommend it.


3 Responses to Ian Ayres Hits Home with “Carrots and Sticks”

  1. Pingback: 192.8 Pounds; Readying for a Public Diet « Life With Spidey

  2. Pingback: Are Public Commitments Counterproductive? - NYTimes.com

  3. Pingback: Are Public Commitments Counterproductive?

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